Food marketing: child's play?

We take a look at how food is marketed to children, and what the problems are.
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  • Updated:6 Mar 2007

03.On-pack promotions

Marketers know young children are incapable of having a relationship with a brand, but they realise kids have a strong connection with characters such as Bob the Builder and Noddy, who might enter their homes every day via the television.” UK trade magazine Promotions & Incentives.

In just one visit each to a Coles and a Woolworths, we found and bought over 70 different food products carrying promotions aimed at kids. The majority of which were high in sugar and/or fat, with items like chocolate, sweet biscuits, sugary breakfast cereals and confectionery among the most frequently promoted. From these we identified five main types of on-product promotion, one or more of which were used by most of the products in our sample:

Favourite characters

  • Studies have shown that the mere appearance of a character with a product can significantly alter a child’s perception of it. Not surprisingly, one of the key methods of marketing to children, particularly the youngest age groups, is to associate food brands with cartoon and TV characters, taking advantage of children’s familiarity with or affection for them. Winnie the Pooh, The Simpsons, Bugs Bunny, Rugrats, Postman Pat, Bob the Builder, SpongeBob Squarepants and Thomas the Tank Engine were just some of the characters that featured on the packaging of products in our sample.
  • Some characters have even been created as the spokes-character for a particular brand or product (think Snap, Crackle and Pop of KELLOGG’S Rice Bubbles fame). They’re not only used on product packaging, but in TV ads and sometimes interactive games on the product or company’s website. Because of their ongoing association with the product, a child needs only to see the character to be reminded of the food they promote, and their impact can be astonishing. For example, it’s been said American children are almost as likely to recognise Ronald McDonald as they are Santa Claus.

Movie tie-ins

  • You’ve probably noticed that with each major kids’ blockbuster movie release comes a variety of products featuring images from the movie on their packaging. The ‘Turn your world white’ Narnia promotion from Cadbury, Schweppes, Pepsi and Cottee’s –– where TV and cinema ads promoted the associated products, which in turn promoted the movie on their packaging –– was a prime example.
  • Nestlé tied in with 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by producing Wonka-branded chocolate bars and confectionery. The tie-in had the advantage of being able to mirror the plot of the film, with Nestlé hiding five golden tickets (which allowed recipients to win major prizes) in bars.


  • What kid could resist the chance to win a trip to Disneyland or the Nestlé chocolate factory, an iPod, a Malvern Star bike, a skateboard or movie passes? Over half the products in our sample offered prizes as an enticement to buy them.
  • Often to enter the competition kids have to SMS their details or fill in an entry form online. Not only does this give companies an instant source of personal details for future marketing, but in the case of websites, it’s another medium through which the product can be promoted to the child.


  • Stickers, magnets, tazos, watches, CD-ROMs and DVDs are just a few of the freebies we got with products in our survey. Invariably, the freebie is just one of a set, so in order to collect all four, six, eight or whatever, you need to buy more than one pack.
  • Fast-food outlets have got this marketing tactic, in the form of 'free' toys with kids' meals, down pat — see Playing with food for more on this.


  • Activities such as join-the-dots, quizzes, mazes and colouring-in are used to appeal to children in the supermarket, helping one brand to win out against another. They also encourage a child to spend time reading the packaging and becoming familiar with the brand or the spokes-character.

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